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Oglalas plant hemp on rez for third time

MANDERSON, S.D. ? The White Plume clan planted its third crop of industrial hemp April 5, this time with television cameras joining print media. For the third year in a row, the family posed a challenge to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, which destroyed its previous two plantings.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe passed a hemp legalization ordinance in 1998 to encourage agricultural economic development on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The White Plume family planted its first hemp crop in 2000 hoping to establish a business that also would help the environment. The DEA destroyed the crops on Oglala land the last two summers as part of its "war on drugs."

The Oglala hemp initiative has become part of a larger national campaign to legalize cultivation of industrial hemp. The DEA's insistence that hemp is indistinguishable from its illegal cousin, marijuana, is hotly debated. But to the White Plumes, who find themselves at the vortex of the controversy, their notoriety clashes with the simple and private nature of their original intent.

The family was three generations, siblings Alex, Percy, Ramona, Rita and Alta, their children and grandchildren. They follow a traditional life. After learning about the many uses of hemp and its potential benefits they planted their first crop and contracted for its sale in compliance with the tribal ordinance and with faith in its legitimacy.

"We just wanted to do something for the young ones," said family head Alex White Plume. "We saw what good things hemp can make, we saw the successful businesses making hemp products in Europe, and we saw how it fit in with how we believe we should live with nature. It was what we'd always been looking for."

A rude awakening awaited them when, four days short of their first harvest, armed agents of several federal bureaus swept down on their land, held them at gunpoint and cut down and took away their flourishing crop. That incursion took place under a federal search warrant whose own documentation revealed, from a sample plant taken and tested by federal authorities, the crop had "no detectable" THC.

Tetrahydrocanninbinol (THC) is the psychotropic agent that gives marijuana smokers their "high." Its concentration in most hemp amounts to zero to three per cent while in most street marijuana it generally runs from eight to 20 percent.

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The armed raid was staged with no prior notification of or permission from the Oglala Sioux tribal government or council. None of the family was arrested or charged by the federal government, but the family's crop was destroyed with no financial compensation.

The family planted again last spring on Percy's portion of the land with full ceremony. All generations took part in the planting and cousins from other reservations joined on the sunny, windy day. But unannounced visits by DEA and FBI agents and unofficial communication between the U.S. Attorney and the White Plumes' private counsel put them in fear that Alex and Percy might be arrested and charged with offenses that could result in long jail terms. The family met and decided to allow the crop to be eradicated by federal agents in return for a guarantee that no charges would be filed.

Even so, sisters Ramona and Alta, surrounded by some of their children, defied the weed-eater-toting agents by gathering around the ceremonial staff in the center of the field, forcing the agents to delicately cut around them. This year Rita planted the hemp on her land.

"I took it very personal," Ramona said at this year's planting. "I loved those plants and I took losing them very personally. I decided I wanted to grow it this year because I want to say something to them if they do try to come down here again this year."

The first year's crop, dubbed their "field of dreams," was planted near Ramona's home.

"We have a right here," Ramona said. "We've been on this land since before everybody else. We have the inherent right, here. We're doing what the tribe says we can do."

Although there was more media in attendance at this year's planting, along with environmental students from Oglala Lakota College, it was still primarily a family affair. Ramona's son, Gabriel, carried and placed the ceremonial staff in the center of the planting ground. Her son, Theo, planted alongside her while her other children, her nieces and her nephews joined in spreading the hemp seed in the furrowed ground. Again this year, the sun was shining brightly.

"I'm tired of being poor and I'm tired of being oppressed," Ramona said. "This crop is going to change that for us this time."